A NIGHT THEY WILL NEVER FORGET

Jan 14, 2015

2014 photo with Curt Styres.jpgBy Craig Rybczynski -- There are many iconic photographs from the night that the Rochester Knighthawks made National Lacrosse League history by winning their third straight Champion’s Cup. But one shot in particular captured the enthusiasm of three friends who strained as they reached over the glass to get the smallest touch of the league’s championship trophy. 

“We were just trying to get a touch of the Cup and hoping Curt would come over, and he did,” said Keith Bushnell. “Usually, I am up there after games and the players slap me a high-five after every win.”

On May 31st, Bushnell and his two friends, Jeff Kimmel and Kevin Keller, got more than their customary postgame congratulations. They were visited by Knighthawks Owner and General Manager Curt Styres, who hoisted the Cup up to the glass to share the trophy with them. 

“It was definitely intense winning the Cup,” said Keller. “Jumping up on the glass, having all the fans cheering and going nuts, and then having him come over was awesome. It was a moment I will never forget.

“I just wish I had longer arms because I couldn’t reach the Cup,” he added with a chuckle.

It was an incredible night as Rochester defeated the Calgary Roughnecks 16-10 in Game Two to force the decisive 10-minute mini-game. The Knighthawks then knocked off the Roughnecks 3-2 by scoring three goals in the final three minutes to remain champions.

“The three-peat is probably one of the best events I have ever been to in my life. I explain that to people to try to get them to come to the games,” said Kimmel. “I loved seeing the arena so packed. Seeing us come back, after being down in the last couple of minutes, was awesome. I am getting goose bumps just talking about it.”

All three men met while working at the Walmart on Ridge Road and it was Kimmel who recruited Bushnell and Keller to start going to Knighthawks games after he saw his first one with his wife, Laura, in 2002-03. It was a year in which Rochester won its first division title and hosted its first NLL Championship Game. With the urging of Kimmel, Bushnell accompanied his co-worker to the final game of the season, which was the first Championship Game hosted by the Knighthawks.

“My first game was the 2003 Championship Game and I have missed only one game since then,” said Bushnell. “The last couple of years, me and my other buddies finally decided to get season tickets.”

Keller started going to Knighthawks games in 2008 and was immediately hooked. Every game day was a day-long affair with Jeff and Keith hosting the pregame festivities. Like the players, the fans also have their routines and pregame rituals. To get pumped up for the game, they watched past games or listened to the pregame show on the radio. But the fun really started once they got to their seats in The Blue Cross Arena. 

“It’s not only the excitement in the game, but just getting together with a bunch of friends,” said the 31-year-old Keller. “We have our own cheers and chants that get our section going. It’s never a dull moment when we go.”

The group – which reaches up to 30 people on some game nights – sits just four rows from the glass in Section 105. They are hard to miss as Kimmel waves a 3-foot by 5-foot Knighthawks flag from his midfield seat location. It’s part of his game-day routine, which also includes sporting a team jersey and team-colored beads. 

Where 38-year-old Kimmel provides the regalia, Bushnell brings the noise. The 31-year-old Rochester native, who dons his Hawks hair and beads every game, gets his section going and brings the intensity associated with the “7th Man.”

“Our section gets pretty loud and I am the one who gets everyone amped up,” he said. “I get the cheers going and then everybody around me starts cheering. I have to keep going for everybody else to keep going.”

Bushnell believes the fans have played a big role in the team’s championship run.

“I think the fans contribute a lot (to the team’s success),” he said. “When the crowd starts going and getting louder, the players get into it and go on their goal runs, which is awesome to see. Everybody gets loud after every goal and keeps getting louder. They keep the team going.”

That was certainly the case during the 2014 NLL Championship Series. Trailing 2-0 in the 10-minute mini-game, with the Cup on the line, Rochester scored three goals in a 1:15 span to keep the Cup in Rochester.

“I think it does (make a difference) playing on their home field. They feed off the crowd,” said Kimmel. “I like how much the crowd gets into it compared to other sports.”

For Keller, Knighthawks games give him a chance to watch the best players in the world play in his hometown. Growing up a fan of teams in Western New York, he was excited that the Knighthawks not only advanced to the Finals, but won all three of them. Like Kimmel and Bushnell, he emphasized the power the fans have to change the momentum of a game.

“When we score or there is a fight or a big hit, the fans react to that and get loud, cheer and scream,” he said. “Obviously, that pumps up the players. They can go on a tear if they get the right momentum.”

It’s a sport he recommends to anyone looking for a two-hour rush of adrenaline.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s very intense, keeps you on the edge of your seat and gets the blood flowing,” said Keller. “Overall, it’s just a great time with friends.”

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